Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Is Froome Vulnerable or on a Slow Simmer?

Chris Froome seemed to lack his trademark knockout punch on the Dauphiné's climbs. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

The peloton saw a different Chris Froome during the Critérium du Dauphiné, but will there be a different ending in July?

Richie Porte (BMC Racing) might not have won the Dauphiné, but he and the other GC favorites roll into next month’s Tour de France sensing that the three-time Tour de France champion might be vulnerable for the first time in years.

Every year that Froome’s won the Tour (2013, 2015, and 2016), he won the weeklong Dauphiné as part of his lead-up. On Sunday, Froome fell short in Sky’s all-in gamble to upend Porte in the thrilling finale and simply ran out of gas on the final climb.

The larger question was whether or not Froome will be at his absolute best in July to make a run for a fourth yellow jersey. Perhaps looking to pile the pressure onto his former teammate, Froome signaled Porte as the man to beat.

“Richie was strongest man in this race,” Froome admitted to reporters Sunday. “I still say that he is the favorite for July, and the strongest in the peloton at this point.”

Froome didn’t look as sharp as he normally does in June. Until this season, Froome and Team Sky were all but untouchable in any stage race that they seriously targeted. Froome was outgunned last year on the road to Formigal, costing him what likely would have been a victory in the Vuelta a España. In nearly every other race Froome was angling to win, he pummeled his rivals into submission.

Froome ceded time to Porte and others in every key stage of the Dauphiné last week.

So what’s the takeaway? There were more questions than answers as the dust settled after the race, but Froome preferred to look at the cup as half-full as he turns his attention toward winning a fourth yellow tunic.

“If I look at where I was a few weeks ago at the Romandie, I seemed to be a long way off the pace,” Froome said. “Here I feel as if I’ve got better and better over the week, and at least I am heading in the right direction. I feel as if I’m on track for July.”

The Dauphiné was supposed to be the Sky captain’s coming out party. Quiet all season and entering the Dauphiné with only 19 days of racing in his legs, Froome was ready to race and needing to win. Yet in all the key moments of the race, Froome could not produce that fear-inducing power that typically demoralizes his rivals. Instead, it was often Froome getting rolled over by Porte and others, including surprise winner Jakob Fuglsang (Astana).

No one at Team Sky was hitting the panic button, insisting that Froome is building his form just in time for the most important date on the calendar.

“Froomey is on the way up, step by step to the Tour,” Sky sport director Nicolas Portal said. “For sure he’s going to progress. He finished the race really well here, making some hard attacks and some long pulls. We’re all looking forward to the Tour, and there’s more to come.”

Sky did everything right in Sunday’s short and explosive climbing stage and turned the screws early to isolate Porte. Froome then rode aggressively, attacking over the top of Col de la Colombiere to drop Porte. Things looked to be going to script, yet Froome couldn’t deliver his classic knockout punch on the final 11.3km climb to Plateau de Solaison.

That is just the kind of climb where Froome characteristically spins away in his high-cadence wobble to blow the wheels off everyone. This week, he didn’t have the legs to finish it off.

It’s important to see Froome’s performance in the context of 2017. First off, he is clearly taking a different road to July this year. After an intense and busy 2016, Sky didn’t put Froome under pressure to perform early. The team’s brain trust is planning to have him fresh and explosive for July, especially in the decisive final week of the Tour, before a likely run to win the Vuelta a España once and for all.

Everyone inside the Sky bus is confident their man will be ready for the Tour, especially with the hardest and most decisive stages still more than one month away.

“It’s a different Dauphiné from the last number of years,” Portal continued. “We came here to try to win and we saw Richie was super strong, and now we can see Fuglsang was clearly very strong, too. I think these two riders were slightly better than us, but the team rode fantastic every day.”

Come July, Froome will hold an important advantage on all of his other rivals: he knows how to win the Tour.

With the exception of Alberto Contador (Vincenzo Nibali isn’t expected to race), Froome is the only former Tour winner who will be lining up in Dusseldorf. And with Contador’s last Tour-winning performance nearly a decade ago, Froome is the only contemporary rider who has an intact Tour de France infrastructure around him. Nairo Quintana, three times on the podium behind Froome, is the only other rider to bring a similar mix of Tour experience and support to this year’s Tour. Porte has yet to finish on a Tour podium.

It’s that collective power in numbers, experience, and strength that Sky can bring to the Tour that gives Portal and others a sense of calm after Froome missed out on the final Dauphiné podium by one second to third-place Dan Martin (Quick-Step floors).

“Fortress Froome” also looks firmly intact coming into July. While Sky’s final Tour selection remains undecided, riders such as Michal Kwiatkowski, Geraint Thomas, Sergio Henao, and likely Mikel Landa and Wout Poels give Froome a depth of support that other teams cannot match. Regardless if Froome was still a touch short of his top form, the team looked to be firing as planned.

The fact that Sky could so easily isolate Porte on Sunday also gives Froome some consolation. Five of Porte’s BMC teammates were close to regaining contact, but none of them could bridge across in the climb-riddled stage to provide Porte with much-needed support. Just as Contador was out-gunned by Andrew Talansky in a similar Dauphiné ambush in 2014, Porte was tactically out-maneuvered Sunday. That reveals a potential soft spot for the Australian come July. It rarely happens, but just as Froome learned last year at Formigal, the cost can be very high when it does occur.

Yet when Froome and Porte went head-to-head, it was the Tasmanian who was a pedal stroke ahead of his Kenya-born former teammate. The three-time Tour winner lost time in three key matchups versus Porte: 37 seconds in the 23.5km time trial, 23 seconds at Alpe d’Huez, and 21 seconds in Sunday’s thriller.

That’s what will matter most in July. The big question now is if Porte can hold that form all the way into late July, and whether or not Froome can get even stronger over the next few weeks.

“I think it was clear that Richie was the strongest rider on the climbs at this race,” BMC Racing sport director Fabio Baldato said. “Sometimes you need to have it all come together, and today it didn’t.”

Porte saw it differently, singling out Froome and Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde.

“There were a few guys who preferred me to lose the race, and they lost their podium as well. That’s racing. Bring on July,” he said.

While it’s still very possible Froome might win another Tour de France, his rivals leave the Dauphiné with at least a sense of hope. For the first time since 2013, that’s something that most in the peloton have not had.

Read more at http://www.velonews.com/2017/06/news/froome-vulnerable-slow-simmer_440541#WWTp2sULPWEtCL8C.99

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